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2012’s Biggest Lesson About the Deficit, the Ocean, and Climate Change

sunset beach skaters
People have long had an affinity for the water. Photo: Carlos Vidal, MyShot

 

There are two things I know for sure: 1) we all love the beach; and 2), we all want to help out when others are in need.

Here’s the data: According to the U.S. government, American coastal businesses dependent on clean oceans and beaches (mostly fishing and tourism) generated $225 billion in 2008. The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana-Purdue University estimates that three weeks after Hurricane Sandy, which slammed the East Coast and impacted 65 million people in late October, fundraising for relief efforts stood at $219 million.

Stir up these two good human tendencies in a pot of politics and what do you get?  That’s right, Federal Flood Insurance!  Seriously, listen to Sandy, Irene, and Katrina; they are talking to you.  They’re saying that we have a choice.  We can continue to waste taxpayer money pretending we can keep things the way they were in the past, or we can plan smart and fair adaptations for our coasts that account for climate change.

Yes, I reveled in the long list of satirical blogs and Steven Colbert poking fun at the North Carolina legislature’s attempt to make sea level rise illegal.  Unfortunately, once the laughing stopped we came back to the real world, where low-lying sandy coastlines move over time.

In the real world climate change will increase the frequency and intensity of storms.  According to “Surging Seas,” a new report from Climate Central, by 2030 many locations along the coast are likely to see storm surges combining with sea level rise to raise waters at least 4 feet above the local high-tide line.  More than 6 million people live on land below 5 feet.

By 2050, the study projects that widespread areas will experience coastal floods exceeding this level.  In dollars, that means that American taxpayers are on the hook for at least $527 billion of vulnerable assets in the nation’s coastal flood plains.  (Watch Rob Young and Andy Coburn from the Center for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University explain the reality in plain English.)

By now you may be making the connection of what this has to do with taxes, politics and the deficit. Coastal communities receive a variety of federal and state subsidies that offset the risks associated with building in areas vulnerable to storms and sea level rise.  We are paying people to put themselves in harm’s way. These subsidies include post-storm disaster assistance, funds for beach nourishment and coastal protection projects, and yes, federal flood insurance.

Federal flood insurance hurts taxpayers because premiums are capped at a level that reflect less than half of the real risk.  That’s why even before Hurricane Sandy, the U.S. National Flood Insurance Program was $18 billion in the red.  As an example of how absurd this can get, an article in The Weekreports that, over the years, the federal government has shelled out a total of $2 million to repeatedly rebuild a single flood-ravaged home in Humble, Texas, assessed at just $116,000. Another home, in Wilkinson County, Miss., worth $69,900, has been flooded 34 times since 1978 and collected $663,000 in insurance payments.  But every time there’s a hurricane we (and our government representatives) watch the devastation on TV and want to do something.  Local politicians rush to Congress to ask for more money for the Federal Flood Insurance Program and local rebuilding efforts.  Who wants to say no?

Hurricane Sandy damaged road Outer Banks
Hurricane Sandy caused damage in the Outer Banks. Photo: Jamie Sharp, My Shot

 

What’s the alternative? 

“Get appraisals for their homes, write them a check, knock the homes down, and just let it go back to its natural state,” said Steve Sweeney, president of the New Jersey state Senate, after Sandy.  That’s the kind of rational and courageous talk that could get a local politician in big trouble.  And here is some more politically unpalatable logic:

  1. Plan future development in low-risk environmentally robust areas, not high risk, environmentally sensitive areas.
  2. Phase out the Federal Flood Insurance program and let that encourage people to get out of harm’s way (help lower income homeowners make the transition to a safer place).
  3. Identify and prioritize those things that are specifically sea-shore dependent like shipping terminals, fishing ports, beaches, and essential natural habitats that underpin our ocean economy.
  4. Use hard protective infrastructure only as a last resort.  Use “soft solutions” (dunes and wetlands) as the main solution.

OR, heck, just keep paying taxes to rebuild someone else’s beachfront property – again.

 

Miguel Jorge is the Director of the National Geographic Society’s Ocean Initiative and a member of the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF) Board of Directors.